Using Consultants Effectively

As a public servant it is important to know how and when to use consultants effectively. If you get it right you get a lot of value from consultants, if you get it wrong you might have been better off feeding £20 notes into a shredder…

There’s often an impatience in senior people to want to see things done immediately. Some of this is driven by the electoral cycle and the need for politicians to have results before the next election. Other times it’s just poor planning, or even just plain optimism. One of the things that over thirty years working in government has taught me well is that if there is a simple and obvious answer to a problem then it is usually wrong. If the solution was easy then we wouldn’t have the problem, unless of course the solution isn’t politically acceptable to the current government. In many cases the easiest way to be seen to be doing something, when ‘something must be done’ is to get some consultants in. I’ve worked on major projects where most of the project team were from a consultancy firm. Even four years in we couldn’t recruit fast enough to replace the consultants because they were generating even more work to be done that needed their specialist expertise.

When Consultants can be Effective

Tasks consultants are suited for

  1. An independent view is needed – usually either assessment of a problem, or assurance in the approach to solving it.
  2. Benchmarking across organisations – mostly because the larger consultancies keep data on previous work they’ve done and have this ready to hand, but it can be misleading where you don’t get the appropriate context taken into account.
  3. Surge capacity for something urgent – this needs to be in parallel with a proper recruitment process, or where there is a clear time-limited surge, otherwise it becomes hugely expensive and poor VFM.
  4. Specialist capability – only where you don’t already have it in your organisation, and it’s so niche that you can’t justify recruiting for full-time people for it.

Broadly speaking you need to ensure the role is a short term one, and where you can own the intellectual property in a readily usable format once they’ve gone. Where consultancy can be effective is that they have a sizable pool of people that can be rapidly deployed, and those people tend to be bright young folk who rapidly experience a lot of sectors and build up a very generalised view of the world. This has it’s upsides and downsides. Consultants bring in clever switched on graduates and work them hard. Those that generate more income for the business and that customers like are rewarded, the less ambitious are sacked unsentimentally. The carrot of partner is dangled in front of the mid-career survivors, they’re all good at what they do and have a wide knowledge that they are great at applying in a variety of situations. Their target is to earn money for the business. Mostly though you’ll get a team of fresh graduate with one or two mid-career people to keep an eye on them. So bear this in mind when engaging consultants and writing the spec. You might be here to deliver for the public, but the consultants aren’t.

How to Use Consultants Effectively

When you do have to have consultants in, whether it’s because the work fits the rules above, or because of political necessity, there are a few rules you should follow. All of these should go in the spec to form the basis of the bid, and they all need to be in the contract. If it isn’t in the contract then it won’t be delivered (and even if it is you need to hold their feet to the fire to get it).

  • Write an Outcome Based Spec – before you put your tender out spend some time defining the problem you want the consultants to solve, what a good solution would look like, and then set out what outputs you need and the outcomes they should lead to. A Theory of Change model is good for this. Doing this means you will have a strong contractual basis for getting what you want from the consultants.
  • Insist on knowledge transfer and owning IP of outputs – you need to be able to use any outputs from the contract for the purpose you bought them for. So this means that you need to understand how they work, and that you need to be able to maintain them once the consultants have left. If it’s an independent review then you also need to be able to publish it and share with other stakeholders. Don’t wait until the work is complete for knowledge transfer, lots of firms will offer you a couple of token workshops at the end to show you the polished outputs. Insist on embedding team members with them to work through it.
  • Dedicate people to manage the consultants – you are mining for value, and you need to work hard for it. If you don’t effectively manage the consultants and keep them on track to deliver the value that you need, then they’ll spend the time trying to up-sell to everyone they meet and passing off ChatGPT style nonsense as the outputs you need. Also you’ll upskill your team better if they’re up close with the consultants and seeing what they are doing and how they are doing.
  • Ask for early sight of draft outputs – you need time in the engagement to polish the outputs before they are formally handed over. This should be set out clearly in your expectations, and you should also ask the consultants to share interim findings about half-way through. This gives you an opportunity to course correct before it is too late. You don’t want to be in a situation where the consultants deliver you something unusable at the very end of the contract and then you are faced with the terrible choice of either binning it and wasting the time/money you’ve spent, or worse giving them even more money to fix the problem.
  • Escalate if you aren’t getting what you need. This should speak for itself, you are paying for a service, so make sure that it is provided. If you don’t get what you need say so, if the consultants don’t listen escalate to the partner overseeing the contract. If that doesn’t work speak to your senior commercial lead, there will be a senior partner looking after all the work with your department, or the government. They have a reputation to protect and they will make sure that you get something that you perceive to be of value, even if not quite everything you asked for.

Alternatives to Consultants

Depending on what is needed there are a few alternatives that can be as or more effective than using consultants. If you have the time and it’s a long-term change, then mobilising internally is the best outcome. It typically take a couple of years to stand up a major transformation team, but that is useful time to build clarity on what, why, and get approval for the money and time needed to make the necessary changes. If you are building specific capability then some short-term contractors to fill the gap while you recruit people with the skills you need are well worthwhile. Blended teams of civil servants and contractors work really well in building capability by leavening with both skills and wider experience while you build those in your team. There are also internal surge teams, including a cross-government operational surge unit for lower level work, and most departments have a priority projects unit to cut down on consultants.

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